Striking Out on Your Own
In theory, self-employment sounds appealing. Be your own boss, control your destiny, walk away from the whims of corporate America and secure your place in the business world. But while striking out on your own might be liberating, it does come with some real costs, as John Case points out in "Trading Places" in the November 2002 issue of Inc. magazine.
Once you become self-employed, you're responsible for paying for things your employer once did -- like office supplies and computer equipment. You incur the cost -- and frustration -- of having to fix your own computer and manage the financial responsibilities of being in business for yourself. Also gone are the employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement benefits, and the advantage of collecting unemployment if you've been laid off. So, it's not surprising that many pause or turn back before taking the leap into entrepreneurship.
"A lot of times people are fence riding or living between two worlds," says Muriel Anderson-Ballard, a professional coach based in San Rafael, Calif., whose business, The Art of Joy, specializes in the challenges faced by entrepreneurs, working mothers, and artists. "They're not committed to the job they're in, but they're not ready to go out on their own." To help you get ready to go it alone, Inc.com discussed the challenges with some soloists and uncovered inspirational and instructional stories from the Inc archives. Collectively, the advice and information you find here might help you jump that fence into self-employment.
Building a Network
Networking, according to Anderson-Ballard, is the most important piece in preparing for self-employment. It provides an opportunity to spread the word about your new business and a way to re-establish professional connections that you automatically lose when you leave an employer. "One thing we fear, as a corporate worker going solo, is that the day we punch out, we quite often lose touch with all of the people who used to be our network," says Jeff Zbar, a freelance writer and owner of Goin' SOHO, a consultancy working with corporations to target home office and teleworkers based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Rebuilding your network is really key when going out on your own, otherwise, who will you turn to?"
Both Anderson-Ballard and Zbar highly recommend joining associations, your local Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, whichever networking opportunities fit your style and schedule. Anderson-Ballard also recommends Business Network International, (BNI.com), a business and professional networking organization with chapters worldwide. But, becoming part of a member database isn't enough. Showing up to meetings and events consistently and proving you're interested in being involved over the long haul is the key to building credibility and lasting relationships.
Besides the traditional associations and organizations business owners can join, soloists increasingly have begun to form alliances or partnerships to help fight isolation and collaborate on projects while still remaining independent. In Julie Bick's November 2001 Inc feature, "The New Face of Self-Employment," she profiles Indigo Partners, a group of independent marketing consultants who have banded together to offer broad strategic marketing services to clients while maintaining their independence as soloists. Inc Senior Writer Susan Greco investigates the alliance trend in her September 2001 Inc article "Declaration of Independents," where she recounts the stories of small businesses joining forces to compete with larger businesses and gain purchasing power. Lastly, in the August 2002 feature, "Independent's Day," Greco and Inc Reporter Kate O'Sullivan take a look at a number of alliances representing soloists in myriad industries, detailing why they were formed and what they do for member soloists. Greco follows-up the article with "United We Stand," offering a checklist of effective collaboration criteria for soloists.
Finding Health Insurance
Health insurance, even if you're not self-employed, can be expensive and difficult to secure. Many small employers today can't even afford to offer reasonable plans to their employees. Imagine the challenges if you're a business of one.
Though the choices for the self-employed are slim, they do exist, but it takes some savvy shopping and good research to come up with the best health-care solution.
Zbar recommends networking and doing a simple Google search for health insurance. Web sites like ehealthinsurance.com and localinsurance.com both provide comparison-shopping features for health benefits.
Two more good stops are the National Association for Health Underwriters (NAHU.org) and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners(NAIC.org). At NAHU.org you can search by state for health benefits providers. At NAIC.org you can search for your state's insurance office at www.naic.org/state_contacts/sid_websites.htm. A simple search on New Hampshire uncovered the State of New Hampshire Insurance Department Web site and contact information for insurance companies that provide individual coverage.
As for Zbar, he initially found health insurance through his local Chamber of Commerce, but is quick to add that the policy became cost prohibitive. "We had health insurance through a private carrier until it went up to $758 a month for a family of five in 2001," he says. Faced with breaking the bank or going without health insurance, Zbar's wife, Robbie, enrolled the family on the plan available to her as a part-time nurse. Now, Zbar says she feels chained to her job. "Health insurance is often one reason why people remain in their jobs," he adds.
Legal, Tax, and Accounting Help
Taxes are perplexing even when you're not self-employed, but as a soloist, they get even more complicated. "Taxes are a critical place to get professional help," says Anderson-Ballard. "You can save yourself time, money and a lot of headaches and concerns about making mistakes."
To research professional help, Zbar recommends networking and using Web sites like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' site, (AICPA.org), and the American Bar Association's site, (ABANET.org). At AICPA.org, you can research contact information on state accounting departments and associations. ABANET.org offers a directory of lawyer referral services organized by state. "There are a lot of resources we [the self-employed] can turn to -- we just have to ask," Zbar says.
When Zbar needs specific financial and legal help, he turns to his accountant and attorney. For general information, he turns to the Internal Revenue Service' s Web site (IRS.gov) for tax information and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site (USPTO.gov) for trademark and patent help. "[By using the IRS site] I don't need to go down to the local IRS office and feel like an audit target."
For quick reads on legal and tax information that affect the self-employed, try Nolo.com. A search on self-employed reveals advice on how to avoid an audit, retirement plan options, and information on the home-office tax deduction as well as helpful publications written by attorneys that clarify the law and tax implications of working for yourself.
Managing You, and Your Business
Going solo can be an isolating -- and frustrating -- experience. Where you were previously in an office with people mulling around and an IT department at your beckon call, you're now at home talking to yourself and clicking through Microsoft Help features on a daily basis. But going solo doesn't mean you have to work from home. Some savvy soloists are forming cooperatives to combat isolation and operational aggravations. In "Alone Together," freelance writer Ron Feemster looks at how some ways savvy soloists are combating the isolation -- and revving up their productivity -- by teaming up to share office space. In Ilan Mochari's article "A Suite Deal," he profiles a trio of soloists who developed a cooperative to share resources like software and equipment, as well as office space.
Tackling your own technology issues can be a major aggravation. Many soloists find themselves troubleshooting their own computer ills or spending a copious amount of time with a computer or software manufacturer's tech support. But where do you turn when your modem gets fried by a lightening strike or your handheld inexplicably eats your contact database? Try an on-site tech support provider. Freelance writer Lauren Gibbons Paul shares her views on a few of them in "A Soloist's Nightmare" including PC On Call based in Cincinnati, Ohio; American Technology Group; formerly known as SOHO Computer Pros, in Brentwood, Tenn.; and My Home Tech in Sacramento, Calif.
For quick tips on troubleshooting simpler computer woes, consult PCWorld.com. PCWorld.com writers offer tips and tweaks for myriad computer issues at www.pcworld.com/howto/index.asp. Here, you'll find advice on anything from virus protection to anti-spam tools.
But if there's only one thing you learn about taking care of your computer, Anderson-Ballard suggests, it should be how to back it up. She suggests backing it up using a Web-based service either provided by your ISP or another vendor or backing it up onto a ZIP drive. "Don't play the roulette of, 'oh, it won't break down,' " says Anderson-Ballard. After all, the very livelihood of your business could depend on it.
Though the challenges seem like many, others have faced them -- and survived. Find a network of soloists you can trust. Ask some questions. Bookmark some good online resources for quick fixes and how-to information. Through these resources and more, you'll find the information and inspiration you need for making self-employment work for you.
--Additional reporting by Rebecca Sullivan